THE HIDDEN WAY: The Life and Influence of Almire Pichon
by Mary Frances Coady
(Darton Longman & Todd, 1999, RRP $26.95. Inquiries The Open Book in capital cities)
Having enjoyed the privilege of knowing Madame Pauline Vanier, the wonderful mother of Jean Vanier of L'Arche, who died in France at Easter 1991, I was delighted to encounter the latest book by Mary Frances Coady. The Hidden Way tells the life of a Jesuit priest, Fr Almire Pichon, who was spiritual director first to the Martin family of Lisieux, which included Marie, Pauline, Celine, and St Thérèse as a postulant in the Carmel. Then, sent as a missionary to Canada, in Quebec Fr Pichon took under his mantle the orphan Thérèse de Salaberry who was to be the mother of Pauline Vanier.
This biography is truly one of the best I have ever read. Through the life story of this one man, I learnt so much of the ebbs and flows of the life of the Church over the past two centuries.
Père Pichon, born to a peasant family in Normandy in 1843 (after his childless parents made a pilgrimage to Our Lady), had an affectionate and tender manner which reflected his belief in a God who is Father, and rich in mercy. Almire Pichon reacted with all his heart against the strictures of Jansenism which constrict the soul. It was he who heard Thérèse Martin's confession and told her she was pleasing to God and had never committed a serious sin.
Thérèse wrote in her autobiography that his words set her soul "on the path of confidence and love". It is so interesting to see how Père Pichon was a crucial helper in Thérèse's formulation of her "little way," which has now led her to be named a Doctor of the Church. The loss of their spiritual director to the French was the gain of the Canadians, and to the Church today, which has been so enriched by the presence of L'Arche, and the message, old but always new, of finding Jesus in the poor.
Mary Coady, with a journalist's pen, traces Père Pichon's life, mostly through his letters, which give an immediacy and intimacy to the story. I warmly recommend this book to all who love to read how God works amazing things in the lives of ordinary people, and the chain of love and friendship which links each generation in the communion of saints.
Mary O'Neill is a New Zealand Catholic journalist presently resident in France.